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Ask an Artist: Harold Offeh

20 July 2023

Commissioned for our summer programme, Boundary Encounters, Harold Offeh’s Pavilion is inspired by the work of Brazilian modernist architect, Lina Bo Bardi, who championed the social and cultural importance of architecture and design.

Offeh invites you to ‘pull up a seat’ as he transforms the gallery into a space for community, conversation, relaxation and play. In his own words, Pavilion “is shaped by a desire to create a space that can facilitate different encounters.”

Here, Offeh discusses his inspiration for the work and how his original idea developed into the final commission.

Can you explain the meaning behind the title of your commission, Pavilion

The title of Pavilion, relates to a small architectural pavilion that the Brazilian designer and architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992) created for her garden in São Paulo, it’s a simple structure designed for gatherings and conversation. Pavilions as an architectural form have a long history and association with exhibitions, play and fun. These are all qualities and references I wanted to draw on. I’ve been interested in Bo Bardi’s architecture and design practice for a long time. In 2003, I was fortunate enough to visit her famous arts and leisure complex, SESC Pompeia, located in a working-class neighbourhood of São Paulo. The complex is a huge brutalist edifice that houses leisure facilities like a swimming pool and other sports facilities together with spaces for exhibitions and festivals. I really love her design, aesthetic and philosophy which is rooted in facilitation and creating social and learning space as in the example of SESC Pompeia. I was further inspired by Bo Bardi’s attention to detail and commitment to projects. She specially designed a series of stools for SESC Pompeia and other furniture for working class communities. When I was invited to develop the commission for Boundary Encounters, I was reminded of Bo Bardi again. I wanted to create a structure that facilitated conversation, play and learning. There are a few small formal references to Bo Bardi in the design, but I also wanted to respond to the main gallery at Modern Art Oxford, with its high roof and big windows that flood the space with light.

Collaborative and social arts practices have always been central to your work. How has the invitation for young people, artists, and audiences to utilise your pavilion influenced your approach to this new artwork?

I’ve been very excited to think about how various people might use the space. Central to that approach is a week-long residency I’m doing with a group of young people from Oxfordshire. I’m inviting them each to create a seat for the table which sits under the suspended Pavilion space. Over the course of the week we will work with some amazing local artists, designers, and makers, like Hattie Speed (This Girl Makes) and Daisy Lula Brunsdon and Andrew James Joye (Lula James), as well as Andy Owen from Modern Art Oxford. Working with the young people, I want to explore how design processes can facilitate learning. It’s an opportunity to think about how, through the design of their seat, they might want to say something. But they will also have to think about how they might want to support and facilitate other people who will be using the space for meeting and workshops throughout the run of Boundary Encounters. It’s been a challenging task for me to think of an approach for this project. I really wanted to make something that has a clear function, but also speaks to a history and the present opportunity of the project. 

Your work is very fun and colourful. Why did you choose these materials, colours, and shapes to work with?

While some of the forms and shapes in the installation reference Bo Bardi, I wanted to have a bright and bold colour palette. This has been driven by a desire to respond to the amazing central gallery space at Modern Art Oxford. When I found out the gallery windows would be open, I was really excited about responding to the light that would be flooding into the space. Working with my studio assistant Tara White, we explored a number of materials that have a translucent quality. This eventually led us to use the translucent plastic curtains you find in various industrial or manufacturing contexts. For me, colour is always about engendering energy, play and spectacle. 

When discussing your initial proposal for this commission, you posed the questions “what constitutes a community and how do we define practice?” I’m interested in putting this question back to you now – how do you define community and practice, and how do they impact the ways in which you create work?

First of all, I want to acknowledge that community does exist. I think I have to recognise that there are some people, some of whom are in power, for whom communities are seen as problematic or undesirable. For me, community is about a collective and intergenerational gathering of people, brought together by place, culture, identity or interests. The community has a shared interest and responsibility for each other and the spaces and environments that they live in. Very simply, through my work I’m trying to support, sustain and learn from these communities.  

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